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Monday 14 February 2011

Anna Nicole: the musical?

Anna Nicole is probably the most eagerly awaited opera event in London this year. Her story is well known, or if it wasn't already then it is now as all the UK papers have been clamouring to do pieces on her life in the build up to this event; this guardian article covers her life story the best. What this opera attempts to do is an almost complete traversal of that life, in order, event by event. This is the its first problem. As was revealed at the end during the bows, the cast is massive - a huge number of characters, most with little to do; on the whole characters only appear in one scene and then are forgotten (some are lazily shoehorned into later scenes), and as this opera attempts to be a complete retelling of her life (the only major episodes that don't get covered are the reality TV show, and the major diet she went on after it) the whole thing seems too fragmentary and is too fast paced to get properly involved with.

Not once does the opera explore why Anna Nicole had this self destructive nature, and only rarely are we given a window into her psychological state - and even then we are only party to her immediate emotions. This is its second problem. Instead, almost all of the focus is on how her friends and family (and society) react to her flamboyant personality and outrageous antics, and we get witty and bitchy asides rather than character interaction and development. Although this adds to the entertainment and humour of the piece (as well as the predictable "we are all to blame, isn't society horrid" moral at the end) it also renders the piece rather pointless and bizarrely slightly dull in parts. You could argue that this shallowness is a reflection of the shallowness of the opera's protagonists, but shallow people can still make for excellent and gripping drama as Berg shows us so well.

So is the fault the composer's or the librettist's? It's hard to say for sure. The libretto mainly uses rhyming couplets, and is basically in the vernacular. The rhyming couplets don't seem weird because the music sounds so much like that of a musical, but it's all quite shallow stuff - lots of cheap gags and contemporary references, but other than these things, fails to add any depth to any of the situations presented in the opera. It's also predictably and aptly smutty, but makes the mistake of trying to shock as well as get laughs from the naughty language and lewd references. Only children and adolescents are actually shocked by swear words, which is why they use them so gleefully - and though I much appreciated the use of the phrase "cum-bucket" (surely the first in opera), it quickly became tedious. As any keen swearer knows, you need to save them up so that they maintain their impact and shock value.

An oddity of the libretto is that the characters regularly talk to the audience as a plot device to explain things and move the story on, either as in a documentary (with a microphone held in front of them), or by just addressing us directly. This is not altogether successfully done and we lose one of the layers of illusion that is required of opera; the characters seem like they are re-enacting scenes from Anna Nicole's life, rather than us witnessing them for ourselves and as a result the characters actually become more distant and it becomes even harder to sympathise or even connect with any of them.

The music doesn't help. It's mainly the sub-Stravinsky/jazz/blues/rock mixture that we've come to expect from Turnage (sometimes it's successful, sometimes not). The thing seems more like a musical though, i.e. plot driven, not musically driven, but at the same time it can't make up its mind - certain scenes are much more operatic in feel, and the sudden switching between styles seems jarring in a way that draws attention to the artifice of the situation again - one is forced to ponder the question: why is this piece of theatre being done to music, and not just as a play? Is the only reason to get more laughs? There are actually a few touching passages of music which sound like schmaltzy american songbook numbers with fairly tuneless operatic declamation over the top, but these seem too few and far between.

The second act is better than the first because there is less going on musically and dramatically, and a little bit of depth is created; there's also less cheap laughs which begin to get a bit tiresome by the end of the first act. The final scene with Anna sitting in the body bag waiting to die, surrounded by cockroach like cameras is actually quite stirring and moving, and maybe the works best portion, but seems too brief a climax for the piece.

The production reflects the music - it has the energy and pizazz of a musical, and costumes are all great and add a lot to the show. Everywhere drips in disneyfied kitsch, glitter and a Las Vegas glamour. One thing I can't explain is the floor being covered in spaghetti (a strange spaghetti western reference?). Sets are rather basic and lack much character, though replacing the opera house curtain with a customised one in cheap looking pink fabric, featuring Anna's face and body builders in place of the customary crest and details, and lips instead of roses is a nice touch. This extention of the theme outside of the stage is continued into the building itself - Anna's face graces the cherubs within the auditorium and then outside all photos are covered with an image of Westbroek as Anna, and all statues have their heads covered and replaced by the same portrait. Lighting throughout is truly excellent, and adds to the visual drama much more than one might expect. The opening and last scenes are especially brilliantly done in this regard.

All singers are boosted by microphones throughout - which although adding to the audibility of the text again seems to draw away some of the intimacy. That it is required (not officially as the opera house is keen to point out - it's just in this case it was deemed desirable apparently) is another pointer that the thing is confused about whether it is a musical or an opera - why hire such large voices as Gerald Finley and Eva-Maria Westbroek if they're going to be miked up? One wonders how much Turnage actually understands how singers sound in opera houses and how they can be effectively balanced with an orchestra...

On to the singing then, which is generally of a very high standard throughout. Eva-Maria Westbroek is superb in the lead role (though the score gives her very few opportunities to shine) and plays the part extremely well. If only the libretto allowed more depth (even shallow depth!) to supply the character with. Gerald Finley, the other superstar name in the production, is very good as Stern, Anna's lawyer, but his character is even less well fleshed out - not enough to get his teeth into. Susan Bickley as Anna's mother Virgie is initially a villain but then becomes a moral commentator on the action as is the opera's most interesting subsidiary character - Bickley sings and acts it beautifully. Alan Oke as the 89 year old J.Howard Marshall II sung well, but seemed too powerful of voice and too sprightly to be convincingly geriatric. All the other singers' appearances are so brief that it is hard to comment on them. Wynne "the-go-compare-guy" Evans is one such part as the Mayor of Mexia and his all too familiar voice seemed apt here.

As I write the run is completely sold out which is fairly extraordinary. The opera house has dramatically reduced the prices of all tickets (stalls were £80 maximum) presumably to attract more younger people. Obviously this is good in theory, but actually, if this is the first opera that people see, which I imagine will be the case for a high proportion of audience members, I'm not sure the opera offers enough to make people want to come back to something else.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I actually agree with a lot of your criticisms, but was in a positively-disposed frame of mind at time of writing mine!